Building a better motorbikeby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Thomas Academy may be well known for its basketball and hockey teams. But there's another team aspiring to make history on campus, too.
Mendota Heights, Minn. — They're usually toiling away in a school garage. The student Experimental Vehicle Team has been building stuff from scratch for a decade -- ice racers, solar bikes and ultra high mileage vehicles. They once got 1,300 miles per gallon in a test.
This year, though, they've built themselves a full-fledged road-ready electric motorcycle. You can plug it in at a standard wall outlet.
Junior Tom Mealey helped build the bike.
"The electrical system allows for a recharge in three hours," he says. "You can go about 40 to 50 miles. Optimal speed is probably around 40 to 50. We're thinking we can get it up to 60, though."
The numbers, though, really don't do this project justice.
It's a big, green fiberglass pod, built around a steel safety frame made bicyle tubing. It's got a full-length upholstered back rest and even a seat belt. Only its wheels, handlebar and front fork bear any real resemblance to a motorcycle.
Imagine mating a mutant soy bean with a Vespa scooter, throw in some lithium phosphate batteries and you get the general idea.
Brenna Loufek goes to nearby Visitation School and helped design the look of the bike.
"I think its definitely a shock factor," she says. "We get different reviews about the like factor. But I actually think it looks like a Smart Car cut in half."
Still, it was a hit out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT offers grants to high schools to encourage invention. St. Thomas got $10,000 for the project and took it out to Boston last month to show off the students work.
Mark Westlake is a physics teacher at St. Thomas. "When they rolled the motorcycle out onto the stage, there was a collective gasp from the audience," he says. "It was the first time anyone had seen it."
Westlake is an advisor to the experimental vehicle team and an amateur welder, too. While he helped with some of the most hazardous work, he says he's also got the pictures to show his students built the bike.
"You know, you always hear comments about, is it possible for high school students to build things like this. And I think its absolutely true that they can, as long as they have the supplies that they need, a little bit of background," Westlake says. "I think that the MIT professors in particular were excited about the project and impressed with our future work force."
But the Minnesota department of public safety -- that's another story.
The St. Thomas students have made a remarkable technological achievement. But it's still not quite ready for rush hour yet.
"We've been working on it since March with the DMV," says student Tom Mealey. "We've been having a little bit of trouble getting it registered and licensed because it's a little bit out of the ordinary. They keep asking for the model and who made it. And we're like, well, we made it ourselves. We don't really have a model name for it. So they're a little bit confused and I think they actually want to come out and see it run and get a little better idea of what it is."
The juniors and sophomores at St. Thomas are already thinking about what they're going to build next, although their advisor, Mark Westlake, says he's encouraging them to keep their feet on the ground. He turned down one donor's offer of a kit aircraft.
"I don't want to lay in bed at night wondering if some guy is flying around in an airplane built by high school kids."
- Morning Edition, 07/24/2008, 7:24 a.m.